Friday, August 31, 2012

25 Classic Movie Stars Who Changed Their Names

Marion Morrison became John Wayne.

 During the studio system era, film actors and actresses changed their names for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they chose new names for themselves, but often names were selected for them by studio executives and directors. The studios exerted at least partial control over every aspect of their stars' lives; they changed names, dyed hair, arranged romances, and created the perfect imaginary people of the public's dreams. Sometimes British or American actors with very ordinary names were given exotic ones to make them seem more glamorous. Foreign performers, on the other hand, might be assigned new names that erased any hint of national or ethnic difference. Today, some movie stars still change their names, but studios no longer command them to do so; modern actors can choose for themselves and create their own identities as performers.

Here are the original and the better known names of twenty-five classic movie stars:

1. Margarita Carmen Cansino = Rita Hayworth        
2. Ruby Katherine Stevens = Barbara Stanwyck      
3. Marion Morrison = John Wayne
4. Frances Ethel Gumm = Judy Garland
5. Archibald Leach = Cary Grant
6. Betty Joan Perske = Lauren Bacall
7. William Henry Pratt = Boris Karloff
8. Issur Danielovitch = Kirk Douglas
9. Norma Jean (Mortenson) Baker = Marilyn Monroe
10. Constance Frances Marie Ockelman = Veronica Lake
11. Lucille Fay LeSueur = Joan Crawford

Would Ethel Gumm have been as famous as Judy Garland?
12. John Charles Carter = Charlton Heston
13. Jane Alice Peters = Carole Lombard
14. Laszlo Lowenstein = Peter Lorre
15. Eleanor Geisman = June Allyson
16. Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler = Hedy Lamarr
17. David Daniel Kaminsky = Danny Kaye

18. Gladys Louise Smith = Mary Pickford
19. Emilie Claudette Chauchoin = Claudette Colbert
20. Jacob Julius Garfinkle = John Garfield
21. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson = Greta Garbo
22. Joseph Yule, Jr. = Mickey Rooney
23. Judith Tuvim = Judy Holliday
24. Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland = Joan Fontaine
25. Bernard Schwartz = Tony Curtis

Classic Films in Focus: THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER (1947)

One thinks of Shirley Temple as a perpetual child, tap dancing her little heart out in those short dresses and pin curls. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to see her as a teenager in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), but it's a pleasant surprise. She's a very good comedienne in a very entertaining picture, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy keeping her excellent company in this classic screwball comedy.

The plot gives Temple plenty to do. Her character, Susan, all too eager to be thought of as mature, falls for Grant's Richard Nugent, just as Nugent finds himself hauled into court before Susan's older sister, Margaret, who is a judge. Hilarity ensues as Susan and Margaret's various suitors attempt to defend their territories against the charms of Richard, while their matchmaking uncle, played by the wonderful Ray Collins, schemes to get all of them exactly where he wants them. Of course it all turns out right in the end, but the appeal of screwball comedy is in the journey to a known destination. We know from the start that Richard and Margaret are fated for romance.

Grant performs his best version of himself here, always urbane but constantly stymied by the chaos going on around him. In that sense the film is very like Bringing Up Baby (1938), but Myrna Loy's Margaret Turner is more or less the opposite of Katharine Hepburn's wacky Susan Vance. Margaret is the cerebral, logical one, but she's not immune to the charisma that emanates from the artistic Richard, who is hilariously imagined by both Susan and Margaret as a knight in shining armor. The obstacle course scene is also a high point, with Susan's high school friends ensuring that Richard takes the coveted trophy away from his nemesis and rival for Margaret's affection (played with relish by Rudy Vallee).

Overall, the movie offers a very progressive image of women in the 1940s. Margaret is a good judge, and nobody questions her abilities or right to hold such an office. Susan changes her career goals every week, but she dreams big, and her relatives never suggest that such dreams are inappropriate for young girls. During a date with Richard, Margaret casually mentions that both of her parents were attorneys, and this information is allowed to pass without any remark about the rarity of female attorneys in the 1930s. The Turner women are smart, active, high achievers, and everyone else had better be fine with that.  It's a refreshing attitude for a film from this period to take.

Don't miss the "You remind me of a man" patter that gets repeated a few times over the course of the film. It's the most famous part of the whole movie, having inspired David Bowie's "Magic Dance" song in Labyrinth (1986) and The Atomic Fireballs song, "Man with the Hex," which appeared on the soundtrack for American Pie (1999). For more of teenaged Shirley Temple, see Since You Went Away (1944) and Fort Apache (1948). Myrna Loy and Cary Grant also costar in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). Loy is best remembered today as William Powell’s leading lady in The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels, but she worked in Hollywood for almost sixty years and made many excellent pictures. For more of Cary Grant’s romantic comedies, see The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and People Will Talk (1951).

This review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Certainly one of the top ten classic movies on almost any list, The Wizard of Oz (1939) has never ceased to attract new fans, and it remains the definitive adaptation of L. Frank Baum's classic novel, despite many contenders to that title both before and after. Its winning combination of story, spectacle, and sound draws viewers into its magical world, and, unlike Dorothy, they rarely yearn to go home. Directed by Victor Fleming (with help from George Cukor, Mervyn Le Roy, and King Vidor) and starring the divinely adorable Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz may well be the perfect first film for the classic movie newcomer.

Garland stars as Dorothy Gale, a young Kansas girl who finds herself transported to the fabulous land of Oz after a cyclone carries her away from home. Unfortunately for Dorothy, her house crushes a wicked witch, which raises the ire of the witch's even more wicked sister (Margaret Hamilton). Dorothy sets off for the Emerald City in the hope that the powerful wizard there can return her to Kansas, and along the way she acquires three companions: a sympathetic Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a sentimental Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a reluctant Lion (Bert Lahr). At the wizard's command, the friends attempt to earn their desired rewards by defeating the witch and her strange minions, but the seemingly Great and Terrible Oz turns out to be a rather different character from what they expected.

Beautifully nuanced performances from each and every actor make the characters live in our hearts. Garland is impossibly girlish and sweet, her big brown eyes round with a sense of wonder that we can't help but share. Bolger, Haley, and Lahr all endow their inhuman characters with tremendous humanity; they are funny because they are so likably real, and there's a sweetly platonic sense of romance in the Scarecrow's relationship with Dorothy. It's no wonder that she'll miss him "most of all." Margaret Hamilton sets the bar for wicked witches everywhere, and Frank Morgan pops up all over the place as an assortment of different characters, suggesting the dreamlike nature of Dorothy's adventure.

Even kids who have never known a world without 3D and CGI can appreciate the visual artistry of The Wizard of Oz. Its special effects have stood the test of time amazingly well, from the cyclone bearing down on Dorothy's farm to the army of winged monkeys filling the sky. The costumes and makeup still look fantastic, especially now that carefully restored versions of the film are available on DVD and Blu-ray. If anything, the effects and costumes might be too good for younger viewers; it's best to think about a child's tolerance for winged monkey attacks, scarecrow dismemberment, and witch melting before leaving your youngster to watch the picture alone. On the plus side, that first glimpse of Technicolor Oz is a moment of pure movie magic, an epiphany about film's unique ability to transport us to other worlds and change the way we see our own.

The Wizard of Oz earned six Oscar nominations; it won two, and Garland won a special Juvenile Award for her performance. It might have done better at the Academy Awards had it not come out in the single greatest year in Hollywood history, but that year would not have been as great without it. For more of Judy Garland and Ray Bolger, see The Harvey Girls (1946). The character actors who make up the cast of The Wizard of Oz turn up in hundreds of classic movies; they were some of Hollywood's hardest working performers, even though they never won or were even nominated for Academy Awards. Garland, of course, has become one of the most beloved stars of all time. See her in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Easter Parade (1948), and A Star is Born (1954) for more of her best performances.

This review was originally posted on The author retains all rights to this content. 

For more about Judy Garland, read "10 classic movies starring Judy Garland" on

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: CASANOVA'S BIG NIGHT (1954)

You'd think a star-studded costume comedy like Casanova's Big Night (1954) would have everything it needed to be a huge success, but it never quite comes together. Perhaps it's Bob Hope's awkward brand of humor that doesn't quite suit the material, or the embarrassment of seeing heavyweight character players like Basil Rathbone, Joan Fontaine, John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Jr., and even Vincent Price being largely thrown away on half-hearted gags. The real shame is that a cast like that ought to be enough to make any picture work, and there really are a couple of interesting moments scattered throughout the film, but overall it fails to live up to its evocation of the legendary lover and his romantic adventures.

Bob Hope plays Pippo, a nervous tailor who impersonates the real Casanova (Vincent Price) in order to woo an attractive widow (Joan Fontaine). When Casanova himself skips town to avoid his creditors, Pippo is coerced into playing his part in a complicated scheme involving a lovely young bride (Audrey Dalton) and the embroidered petticoat on which her family's honor depends. Casanova's valet (Basil Rathbone) joins the widow to help Pippo carry out the deception and obtain the petticoat, but Pippo begins to have second thoughts about his part in the plan when he gets to know the innocent young woman whose marriage will be ruined should he succeed.

Hope can be very funny, but his scenes in Casanova's Big Night mostly fall flat. His best moment might be his drag impersonation of a foreign dignitary, although he never really seems to have much enthusiasm for his role. Vincent Price disappears completely after the first few minutes, which is too bad because a comedy about Price's misadventures as the scoundrel Casanova might have been a lot more interesting. Basil Rathbone seems almost ashamed of himself for being in the picture, and his fencing talents are underutilized in a film that would have been perfectly suited to swashbuckling action. Of the lot, Joan Fontaine probably gets the best opportunity to work her material, and we see her dueling with swords, rowing gondolas, brandishing skillets, and disguising herself as a man in various entertaining scenes. Other notable stars, like John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Raymond Burr turn up in small parts that don't particularly do them justice.

The breaking of the fourth wall at the end of the picture strikes me as contrived and overly cute, perhaps because Hope is so smarmy. Normally a little meta-humor is a welcome addition, but here it just feels like the movie painted itself into a corner and couldn't come up with a better way to end. Paramount rolled out the bells and whistles for this production, with splendid Technicolor costumes by Edith Head and plenty of showy set pieces, but these embellishments can't make up for the basic lethargy of the story and its protagonist.

If you like swashbuckling comedies, try The Court Jester (1955) instead. A comparison of the two pictures reveals everything that Casanova's Big Night could have done better but didn't. For a better Bob Hope comedy, see The Ghost Breakers (1940). Look for the other stars of this forgettable picture in many of Hollywood's most memorable movies, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Rebecca (1940), The Wolf Man (1941), and Laura (1944).

Classic Circus Movies

Most children love the circus; there's something magical about seeing the performers there in the ring, moving in their own world of spotlights and sawdust. Classic movies have visited that world many times, and some of Hollywood's most iconic stars have run away to join the circus on the silver screen. Here are just a few of the classic movies that represent the excitement, humor, and even danger of life beneath the big top.

 For kids and adults:

The Circus (1928) - Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp joins the circus in this silent comedy, with predictably chaotic results. Chaplin's turn on the high wire while being tormented by a group of mischievous monkeys is a particularly great scene, and, as usual, there is plenty of physical comedy with the Tramp in flight from various authority figures. Like most Chaplin films, the story mixes comedy and melodrama, and the sadder notes of the Tramp's adventure might upset very young viewers.

At the Circus (1939) - The Marx Brothers could make any situation seem like a three ring circus, but in this film Harpo and Chico really are members of a traveling circus troupe, while Groucho plays an eccentric lawyer summoned to help the owner of the circus hang on to his business. Groucho's performance of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" is a highlight of the movie, although At the Circus ranks fairly low on the list of Marx Brothers films, especially compared with favorites like Duck Soup (1933) and A Day at the Races (1937).

Dumbo (1941) - Like Chaplin's Tramp and Harpo Marx, Dumbo is a silent comedian, but this sentimental tale of the little elephant with the big ears remains one of Disney's most compelling pictures. "Baby Mine" won't leave a dry eye in the house, while "Casey Junior" and "Pink Elephants" are bouncy, jovial numbers sure to capture the attention of both children and adults.

For adults:

Freaks (1932) - Tod Browning's cult classic of circus horror follows the crimes and eventual punishment of a conniving big top beauty (Olga Baclanova) and her strong man lover, who intend to fleece an innocent performer (Harry Earles) of his wealth. Browning achieves a disturbing level of realism by employing actual sideshow performers in his film, which blurs the line between fiction and reality. Not for the faint of heart, Freaks has gained a tremendous following over the years as one of Hollywood's most shocking classic films, but Browning is probably more widely remembered as the director of the 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi as the vampiric count.

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Nightmare Alley (1947) - Swashbuckling icon Tyrone Power assumes a darker role in this noir story of a carnie who dreams big. The part represented an intentional effort by Power to break out of typecasting as a heroic leading man, although films like The Mark of Zorro (1940) had made him a star. Edmund Goulding, who had helmed the Bette Davis vehicles Dark Victory (1939) and The Old Maid (1939), directs; he also worked with Power on The Razor's Edge (1946).

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) - Director Cecil B. DeMille presents the lives of big top performers in this huge, star-studded spectacle. Winner of Best Picture in 1953, the film stars Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, and more, including real life circus clown Emmett Kelly, whom most people today will recognize as the "Sad Clown" of countless art prints and velvet paintings. You'll also find Jimmy Stewart playing the role of another clown. Despite its Oscar success, the film is seldom seen today, but as of August 2012 you can watch it for free on Amazon Instant Video with a Prime membership.